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THE COLOUR OF MILK by Nell Leyshon


by Nell Leyshon

Pub Date: Dec. 26th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-219207-3
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

A cameo brooch of a novel from British playwright and novelist Leyshon (Devotion, 2008, etc.), under 200 pages, set in 19th-century England and narrated in the quixotic voice (including no capital letters and odd verb emphasis, among other contrivances) of a barely literate farm girl.

Fourteen-year-old Mary’s entire world consists of the farm where she lives with her parents, three older sisters and beloved invalid grandfather with whom she shares a caustic sense of humor. Despite a malformed leg that causes her to limp, she toils as hard as her three older sisters under the despotic eye of her father, who despairs/resents that he has no boys to help him. One Easter sunrise, the sisters share their secret wishes: devout Beatrice to meet the Lord, Hope to live in comfort and Violet to be a teacher in a school, although she cannot read. Mary, usually never one to mince words, skips her turn. She has no wishes formed in her head, no vista she dreams of exploring. Her world may be harsh, but she has no desire to venture further. She resists when her father sends her away to work in the vicarage to help the vicar Mr. Graham’s ailing wife. It doesn’t matter that the gentle invalid takes an immediate fancy to Mary or that life is much easier. She misses the farm and does not see her new, more comfortable situation as an opportunity or adventure. No fool, she refuses to flirt with Ralph, the vicar’s caddish adolescent son, who has already seduced Violet and pays scant attention to his adoring mother. After Ralph leaves for Oxford, Mrs. Graham weakens and dies. Mr. Graham, who has begun to teach Mary to read, asks her to continue in his employ. But the price of literacy turns out to be too high for Mary. The collision of sexual desire with the British class system leads to violent tragedy.

What begins as a refreshingly unromanticized miniature of rural 19th-century Britain slips at the end into standard melodrama.